Pique'n Yer Interest 

The unthinking consumer

For the past two years I've been a part of a lively discussion (translation: argument) over the use of disposable coffee cups. It mostly involves two Squamish friends in particular for whom daily Starbucks visits happen seven to 12 times a week (despite the wonderful Onatah and Galileo Cafes nearby). It's not just that I hate Starbucks (I do) and judge harshly those who refuse to try other options, which seems to be a sick and intrinsic part of being a Starbucks loyal (brainwashed), or even that I eschew Starbucks' motto to be everywhere they're not (barf). Or that every Starbucks in Vancouver is filled with people sitting in with disposable cups - if you're going to be an industry giant, then promote responsible practices like encouraging customers to use "for here" cups if they're staying a while.

Café of choice aside - my issue is that these two intelligent, entrepreneurial, fabulous men refuse to bring their own mugs even though they get a coffee to go every single day. Their excuses typically follow this order: they can't remember to bring one along; travel mugs are way more energy intensive to make; the water needed to clean said travel mugs makes them more of an environmental burden than disposable cups; and they can't remember to clean them.

As these pro-takeout cup statements often surface in the disposable versus travel mug debate, I'd like to clarify some of the data.

For the record, I'm not entirely against takeout cups - they serve a purpose. Though I'm neurotic enough about the subject to feel intensely hypocritical when I use one, for the most part I think they're handy for those on the fly. The problem is with those who take the same action daily and could make a better choice. We live in a coffee culture - in 2006, 16 billion take-out cups were used in the USA. In 2010 that number jumped to 23 billion. It's clearly time to hit the reset button on the unthinking consumer.

To address the whole can't-remember-to-bring-one-along thingy, I can only say this: boo-hoo, pumpkin - start trying. You're probably not always going to remember but the above statement indicates an unwillingness to try (sobbing six-year-olds say things like "I just can't do it" when they can't put their Death Star together, not grown, educated adults in reference to coffee cups). It's the closed-door approach to the issue - a shortsighted disregard that I just don't buy. Try keeping one or two in plain sight - dish racks or by your car keys. If you're in an office (ahem, Pique staffers) and you decide to go for an afternoon tea at the café located 20 feet away, take one of the ceramic mugs in the cupboard instead of bringing back the disposable cups.

Onto the energy issue. There is no argument that paper cups take less energy to make than say, a stainless steel travel mug. The thing to look for is called the breaking point. The true benefit of a reusable vessel is in how often you use it - the point at which it becomes more environmentally friendly than a paper cup. Around 24 is the number of times you'd have to use a stainless steel mug to make it more eco-friendly than a disposable cup. That's not very high if you're drinking coffee daily.

For those screeching about steel and resource extraction, suck on this - Canada's staunch food and drug regulations require most takeout cups to be made of 100 per cent bleached virgin paperboard - ie straight-up tree. Some can be recycled, and some are made with a small percentage of recycled product but even then the majority are coated in polyethylene - a plastic that keeps the coffee from penetrating the paper and keeps the paper out of recycling bin. Polyethylene also releases methane, a greenhouse gas that has 23 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide.

Ah, the washing part. Most travel mugs need a quick rinse with non-soapy water to stay clean. Even if you're giving it a proper scrub every day, that amount of water is still half that is used to create a paper cup.

Recycling paper cups is possible, but the thing with people who are too busy to remember a travel mug is that they are also less likely to carry the empty cup around until they spot a recycling bin to unload its various components. Few think to recycle the slip-on cardboard sleeve or plastic lid, so most public garbage bins are overflowing with non-recycled, slow to biodegrade plastic coated cups with all their accessories.

I've long been thinking of a way to get the millions of unused "World's Best Dad" and "Merry Christmas" mugs out of second hand stores and into circulation in lieu of paper cups - giving them a second life as a sort of non-disposable, reusable takeout cup for those in a hurry. It would help make better use of energy intensive products that are sitting idle while simultaneously reducing the production of paper cups. Ideas are welcome - I'll keep you posted on my progress.




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